The reality of sexual assault in our society has produced a harrowing list of paradoxes that expose the flaws of the systems set up to ensure our security. Our system of laws revolve around the idea that an accused person must be considered innocent until proven guilty. But, like with all systems, there are those who game it for their own benefit to the detriment of others. The need for proof and evidence to convict someone of a crime often leaves the victims of offences that are hard to prove out in the cold. But without it, how can we really be certain of a person’s guilt?
These are the issues raised in ‘National Treasure’, a four-part drama that originally aired on Channel 4 back in September 2016. The first programme of its kind to tackle the causes and consequences of ‘Operation Yewtree’ – a police investigation into the claims of sexual assault made against several individuals in positions of power, fame and authority – it was a series that was cutting right into the heart of the dangers of our celebrity culture and hero worship.
Robbie Coltrane plays Paul Finchley, a comedian turned gameshow host, who has his life turned upside down when he finds he has been accused of using his influence to abuse vulnerable girls. Initially, the series follows his character through his accusation. This is crucial. For the series to accurately recreate our current cultural climate, it must first get us to like its protagonist. The celebrities accused of all of these crimes are, like the title says, national treasures. We have invested our time and money into being entertained by them and idolising them. The idea that these investments were unwise, and possibly based on deceits, makes us feel foolish.
We all have this notion in our heads that we can all detect duplicity and evil intentions. We like to pretend that they all carry with them certain warning signs, easily detected by our insightful minds. We are so often wrong about those ideas, but their instinctual nature is so deep within us we would rather save face than admit a mistake. It preserves our fragile egos. Such is the fate of Julie Walter’s character, the wife of the accused. So deeply entrenched in her is the idea that she knows her husband so well that she believes she could smell his lies. It’s the idea that she has been manipulated by a predator for so very long – and been made a fool of – that eventually undoes her.
Coltrane’s and Walter’s performances are so realistic you’d swear they were drawing from real life experiences. Their scenes together cut deep (frankly, the whole thing cuts deep), the cameras give us these uncomfortable angles that play about with the idea of authority, they have us leaning over the characters as they try to convince themselves of their delusions, almost as if we are judging them, which – whether we mean to or not – is precisely what we are doing. My skin crawled at the times when the partners found themselves having to confront the impossible situation they have found themselves in and the kinds of people they become when defending their own sins.
The programme never really puts his guilt in any doubt, but what he is guilty of? What crime are we punishing him for? How far would we go to punish him? And is this all happening now in real life? This is what will have you tossing in the night, trying to fling these burning questions from deep within your mind.
Dir: Marc Munden
Scr: Jack Thorne
Starring: Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, Andrea Riseborough, Tim McInnerny
DOP: Ole Bratt Birkeland
Music: Cristobal Tapia de Veer
Number of Episodes: 4
Episode Runtime: 60 mins
National Treasure is available on DVD now.